The Stuff of Mulberries

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
There is a children's song about skipping around a mulberry bush, but mine don't grow!

Submitted: December 06, 2016

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Submitted: December 06, 2016

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‘Here we go round the mulberry bush…’ the schoolyard song rings in my ears still, because it kept us warm on frosty mornings. But without wanting to dash any fond childhood memories, mulberries are trees rather than bushes.

A frail old nurseryman came into my office and we talked the usual business – bargaining for lower growing-on-line prices and bullshitting about our success rate of rooting Leyland cuttings. My interest perked when he told me he had successfully propagated some black mulberry plants, which were thriving quite nicely in the cooler Invercargill climate and were now ready for out-planting.

I had been mulling over what tree crop I could establish on the bottom river flat and the old man told me that mulberries enjoy hard, cold winters and hot, dry summers. Those specs ticked the boxes for the conditions down on the flat so I told him that I would buy ten of his plants. It came as a surprise to me when the old codger told me they were $25 each! At that time $25 would buy very special trees indeed! It is a rare event for me to pay actual money any tree but, I was keen to give mulberries a go, after growing trees is my hobby.

Despite careful fencing, weed control and tending, my six inch sticks stayed six inch sticks! Ten years later, they were hardly any bigger and I decided they would need to self-manage for the next couple of years because I was off to Africa! I wasn’t to know it would end up being seven years! On my return and after other homecoming priorities, I inspected my mulberry trees and found eight had turned up their toes. It is pretty much a certainty that if trees are not thriving, it is likely the growing conditions-cum-environment is unsuitable.

So with some new-found knowledge, I moved the remaining two to another, more favourable spot nearer the house that is essentially frost-free and I have been hand watering them for close on ten years. So after better than thirty years, one of the trees is about as high as my knee and the other is about half that size. Clearly these trees are still not thriving let alone showing signs of bearing fruit!

A leafy tree was growing outside our bedroom window at Makumira (Tanzania), and I soon noticed that the birds and monkeys visited it regularly to feed on the inch long berries as they ripened. This tree I identified as Morus nigra, common name: black mulberry – the very same species that old nurseryman had sold me! Over time, and only occasionally did I get to enjoy those fruits because the animals were smart at pouncing just as they ripened. So I realised that if mine at home ever did fruit, the birds would likely beat me to them anyway!

It turns out that the old nurseryman was pulling my leg, so to speak, because I propagated hundreds of rooted cuttings from that one small mulberry tree! Some trees, are very difficult to propagate from cuttings, like those Leylands we bullshitted about, they require dipping in fungicide, treating with a rooting hormone, a special potting media, sitting on heat and misting for at least three months. At the time I spoke to the old man, a 10% strike was fairly usual – later I perfected things a bit to achieve around 80%.

These mulberries though were as easy as poplars to propagate. Just make six inch cuttings, 1cm in diameter or smaller, stick them in a pot of soil mix, keep reasonably watered and watch them grow, they put roots on within four weeks.

While local kids salivate at the thought of sampling the fruit, the Makumira area was a microclimate that suited the tree.  In most of the villages, although I wanted to supply them, the climate was far too harsh, so I didn’t distribute them widely. However another mulberry species, Morus indica, locally known as Mandella, was much hardier but had a tiny fruit that are not at all sweet, I never saw kids eating them but they cut them for animal fodder.

A local vet wanted to start up a silkworm industry and asked me to grow a quantity of the black mulberries for him, which I did, but I told him that I understood the silk industry used white mulberry, Morus alba. But he assured me that the worms gobbled the leaves off my tree that I gave him for him to try. I grew 200 rooted cuttings for him but I can’t report on the outcome because of my repatriation back home.

I know of no other black mulberry trees in our wider area and I do poke around looking for different tree species and their seed. I’m happy in the knowledge that given the right conditions I can grow them and that I left hundreds of them scattered around the Arusha–Meru area.

Meanwhile my two are just adding an inch or so in stature each year. Maybe I should get some kids to dance around them!


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